• Little Known Facts: A Novel
    Little Known Facts: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
  • Paris, He Said: A Novel
    Paris, He Said: A Novel
    by Christine Sneed
  • The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    The Virginity of Famous Men: Stories
    by Christine Sneed
Goodreads
Sunday
Nov182012

Kirkus Reviews 

www.kirkusreviews.com


LITTLE KNOWN FACTS
Author: Sneed, Christine

Review Issue Date: November 1, 2012
Online Publish Date: October 11, 2012
Publisher:Bloomsbury
Pages: 304
Price ( Hardcover ): $25.00
Publication Date: February 12, 2013
ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-1-60819-958-7
Category: Fiction

Sneed’s debut novel, which follows a short story collection (Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry, 2010), goes beyond the tabloid headlines and chronicles the lives of those who orbit a famous actor.

Celebrity has its perks as well as its drawbacks, and revered movie icon Renn Ivins’ life is no exception. Adored by fans throughout the world, those closest to him also are affected by his aura and not necessarily in a positive way. His earnings provide financial security for his children, ex-wives, family members and girlfriends, but Ivins’ fame is a double-edged sword. Both of Ivins’ adult children become involved with lovers who secretly thrill at the chance to be connected to his inner circle. Will, his son, coasts through life engulfed in a sea of contradicting emotions. He loves Ivins and inwardly strives to please him, but he also resents his father’s interference and feels as if he will never measure up to his expectations, so he compensates in other not-so-healthy ways. At the same time, although he despises himself for it, he uses his father’s name to impress others. Anna, Will’s sister, is a brilliant but naïve medical student who rationalizes her questionable choices and has more in common with her father than she realizes. Time has more or less softened Ivins’ first wife’s attitude toward him. A successful pediatrician who has lived a solitary life since their divorce 15 years earlier, she still watches all of his movies. And then there’s Ivins himself. Fodder for a bitter second wife’s book and a boon for his much younger girlfriend’s career, this author of two journals—one for posterity, the other more personal and destroyed each year—knows the allure of his public persona. It’s what he cultivates when he donates to charities and signs autographs. And it’s much easier on the ego to believe his own press.

Sneed effectively blurs the line between fact and fiction and brings each character to life.



Tuesday
Mar222011

Portraits of a Few...Rain Taxi Review, Spring 2011 

Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry
University of Massachusetts Press. November 2010
Winner of The Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, 2009 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Awards Series
 


In Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, Christine Sneed’s talent for creating compelling stories and vivid characters suggests V.S. Pritchett being channeled by Elizabeth McCracken, and one wonders how this extraordinarily accomplished collection of stories could be her first. But Sneed has not exactly sprung from nowhere—her short stories and poems have been appearing in prominent journals since the mid-90s. 
“Quality of Life,” which appeared in The Best American Short Stories 2008, is the opening story of the collection, and in its creepy depiction of the process by which a young woman becomes a rich, older man’s concubine, leans toward fable. The last story in the collection, “Walled City” decidedly is a fable about a city in which the consensual restriction of citizens’ behavior is taken to absurd extremes. All the stories in between are straightforwardly realistic, but these two sets of circumstances—unconventional romantic relationships and prohibitive social conditions—are the contexts in which all of them take place; the locations are often Chicago and smaller Midwestern cities. 
Propelled by mixed motivations, the complexity of Sneed’s characters is matched by the complexity of thought, mood and voice in Portraits. In “By the Way,” our narrator muses, “Something not everyone seems to realize is that the worst thing about getting older is that so many people will always be younger than you.” (p.65) This kind of thoughtfulness is balanced with the kind of humor we see in “Walled City,” where, after conversation is outlawed, “few of the doctors having had the time to learn sign language… opted instead to begin writing legibly.” (p.152) This story, written with a detached, ironic formality, immediately follows the story “A Million Dollars,” narrated by the honest and vulnerable Thea, a teenaged waitress who speaks plainly and detests “smooth-talking scuzzballs.” (p.134) But like all of this collection’s protagonists, Thea is a deep well of empathy. Even in apparent danger of being taken advantage of by a cheesy photographer, she says, “No matter if he’s a serial killer. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings, I guess. I’m just not mean enough to do something like that.” (p.133)
The empathetic impulse that guides these stories extends to Sneed’s treatment of her characters’ tormenting jealousies. Small-town Birdy and Cornell Schweitzer, in “You’re So Different,” invite Margaret—a screenwriter whom they have not seen since they were all in high school twenty years before—to lunch, during which it is revealed that they are both jealous of her. Cornell turns vicious and blurts that Margaret’s movies “are about sex.” (p.56) When she says that they’re about more than that, Cornell, seething with angry sarcasm, says, “Never fear… As long as you’re doing your thing, we’re safe from complete despair.” (p.57) In spite of their mortifyingly rude treatment of her, for long after she returns home, Margaret continues to worry about the Schweitzers, their opinions of her and her films, and has to resist an urge to call and check up on them. 
Through Sneed’s careful attention to her characters in this rich and varied collection, the reader lives briefly but sympathetically alongside people who challenge and change each other. The reward is the great one most of us hope for when we pick up a work of fiction—feeling moved. Toward the end of the story “You’re So Different,” Sneed adds the following final touches to her psychological portrait of Margaret, the screenwriter. “She has always yearned for romantic gestures, has always wanted to inspire them and knows she now sometimes does… She has worked for years for this, to be a stranger benignly affecting another, traveling across the invisible boundaries of time and circumstance.” (p.62) Ah, yes indeed, Ms. Sneed. 
 
 
—Justin Courter

Thursday
Mar032011

American Literary Review, March 2, 2011

Zach VandeZande of American Literary Review wrote this reivew of Portraits:

 

At the end of last semester, Miro walked into the ALR office and asked me if I had time to review Christine Sneed’s Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry, and I said yes, and I read it that weekend and quite enjoyed it, and then, somewhere between revising stories of my own, getting the ALR issue finalized and proofing it, getting my grading done, and then heading off to the tragicomedy that was my Christmas break… well, let’s just say I’m a terrible human being who can’t be trusted.

So when Miro asked me again to review the book this past week, I of course felt like an ass, which is probably not the feeling Sneed would want her book to prompt in someone who liked it a good deal, but here we are.  The book itself, which won the Grace Paley Prize and was published last year, is now a finalist for the LA Times First Fiction Award, and for good reason.  The ten stories in this volume have a special knack for getting at the personal politics underpinning adult relationships, particularly ones in which there’s some kind of authority gap (dramatic age differences between lovers factor into several of the stories).

The opener, “Quality of Life,” is one of the more harrowing pieces, a sharp thesis statement of a story that hinges on the kind of personal compromise that happens when a powerful man decides that a woman belongs to him.  It’s a story that’s squelching and awful in the best way (think Don Delillo when he starts being mean to his characters), and serves as a cautionary tale to set the tone and remind us of the tension inherent in the stories to come, even as they play out without the kind of clear sense of danger that “Quality of Life” has.  Here, Sneed demonstrates a knack for revealing her characters without letting us know she’s revealing them—the mysterious Mr. Fulger makes a point of sticking around to see a would-be thief get his due, saying “I’m sure this isn’t his first offense.  He knew what he was doing.  But obviously so did I.”  A statement like this puts a character into sharp focus, and Sneed makes the most of moments like this one.

The writing is pretty keen throughout, but I’d like to single out the beginning paragraph of “Twelve + Twelve” as one of my favorites of my past year of reading, a bitter little firecracker screed that put me right where I needed to be in the story:

Someone in the alley three stories below my window was calling out to someone else and what he was saying was not very nice.  Maybe he did it because we were all stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum.  We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies, our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets.  No one I knew was outside digging up the flower beds, and certainly no one was in the mood to offer spare coins to strangers distractedly ransacking their pockets for change to feed the meters.  Instead, people were talking heatedly into mobile phones or looking down at their feet as they trudged, these unloved husbands and crash-dieters and stubborn musicians and disbarred lawyers who all huddled in on themselves because among their other hardships, winter hadn’t yet ended and at this near-unendurable point, they just couldn’t look each other in the face.

There’s this great, desperate energy when Sneed gets cracking that I like a lot, and it runs throughout “Twelve + Twelve,” which was perhaps my favorite in the collection.

You’re So Different, concerning a famous director returning home to her high school reunion, is another standout.  So too is the title story.  I hesitate to say that these stories are all about people realizing their own powerlessness, because that would make it seem like Sneed’s characters don’t have agency (and let me tell you, they do), but they are about what we can’t control, what we have to give up, and how other people define us.  One of the frequent conversations we have about stories here at UNT is if the kind of stories you find in literary journals are flat, mechanical, or boring.  It’s a real danger, but it comes with a real reward, as the best “literary journal” fiction contains a truth you’re not going to find anywhere else, and Sneed’s book proves that point.

If the stories seem to go a little slack in the back half of the book, it’s only because of what’s come before.  The arrangement of a short story collection is always a dicey affair (I personally hold to the “crap sandwich” as the best approach, where the good stuff goes on the outsides), and maybe shuffling the deck a little would benefit the book; regardless, the ten stories in Portraits of a Few People I’ve Made Cry reveal a voice that we should be paying attention to.

What I'm saying is that I spend a lot of time as the assistant fiction editor sorting through the slush pile, and yeah, there are gems, but there's also a lot of chaff (and many, many mixed metaphors).  The rest of my time is spent plowing through Tolstoy or Carver or whichever other old hat established writer I haven't gotten around to before now.  So coming across a book like this, full of solidly-plotted, well-written stories by an up-and-comer with a clarity of vision that seems rarer and rarer in the contemporary short story… well, it's a nice feeling is all, and if I had my way Sneed's book wouldn't find its way back to Miro; instead, it would slide into a place on my shelf between George Saunders and John Steinbeck, not too far away from Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, and Alice Munro, deserving its place.

Monday
Feb072011

On the Air with Rick Kogan

On Sunday, February 6, I had the pleasure of going to the WGN studios (a space they share with the Chicago Tribune in the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue), and talking with writer and radio personality Rick Kogan about my story collection, Portraits of a Few...  Click here: Radio podcast...and you'll be routed to Rick's WGN page where you can listen to the interview. 

Wednesday
Jan262011

Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune "Lit Life" article, 16 Jan. 2011

"Chicago-style Romance Powers Christine Sneed's New Stories"

 Love is a many hindered thing.

It's thwarted at every turn, imperiled every second, and the fact that it works out for anybody anywhere for any length of time whatsoever is an absolute miracle - yet here we all are, fools for love, chasing the emotion as if it were a runaway puppy heading for the highway at rush hour.

While it can produce pain and frustration, love also produces something else: great fiction.

Romance-related snafus are at the heart of a smartly arch new story collection by Christine Sneed, a Chicago-based author of uncommon narrative skill and nuanced psychological acuity. In story after story in "Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry" (University of Massachusetts Press), her characters fall in love, fall out of love and try to figure out why. They seethe and they burn. They suffer and rejoice.

They sit and wait. In most cases, they think altogether too much.

Love, of course, is a theater, the best arena we have for highlighting the human tendency toward emotional self-destruction. Sneed carefully arranges each story on that stage, and the brisk little dramas are insightful, moving, funny, sometimes brilliant.

Along the way, she offers wincingly accurate pictures of Chicago in all seasons, including the gloomy one that's just around the corner. "We were exhausted and cynical under cloudy skies," grouses the narrator in "Twelve + Twelve," "our pants cuffs perpetually caked in grit and mud, our car tires spinning and spinning on snow-choked streets."

The narrator is "stuck in an ugly, listless March, ice visible everywhere and clinging to our lawns like a dense gray scum." Not only that, but the narrator also must put up with creepy visits from her new boyfriend's ex-wife.

In the story "Alex Rice Inc.," a young English professor at a Chicago university that sounds very much like DePaul discovers that a Hollywood star has decided to return to his hometown and - you guessed it - enroll in her class. The story is beautifully told. The teacher's internal monologue of self-deprecation ("She is a teacher, a necessary nuisance in their trajectory through four years of sex and drinking and perfunctory study") is interrupted by this strange new fact in her world: A famous man, handsome and charming, is sitting in her classroom. What now?

The best story in the book is "Quality of Life," a cross between a lighthearted romantic movie like "Pretty Woman" and an eerie, baffling "Twilight Zone" episode, the kind in which the tension builds by steady, unsettling degrees. A woman's romantic relationship with a mysterious older man goes from intriguing to sinister, but so casually that she's barely aware of the change - until it's too late. For Sneed, 39, an Evanston, Ill., resident, the collection is the culmination of many years of hard work. She toiled diligently at her craft, enduring rejections and periods of self-doubt because she believed she had something to say.

"The women in my book are caught in webs of habit and stereotype and expectation. These stories are about that moment of self-knowledge, when you learn things about yourself that you don't like," she said in an interview. "I try to write stories that I would want to read."

Born in Wisconsin and raised in Libertyville, Sneed graduated from Georgetown University. She was a secretary in Chicago for several years before heading to Indiana University to earn a graduate degree in creative writing.

Since her return to Chicago, she has been teaching writing at DePaul.

Of writing stories, she said: "I've found a career that I adore. There's such joy in it."

Sneed sounds like a woman in love. Yet if the stories in her collection are any guide, that means she could be in for real trouble.